The Pain

This article was featured in The Scavenger magazine.

Childless While the pain of involuntary childlessness is devastating for both women and men, childless people should be considered an integral part of society and not as outsiders or victims, writes Lynda Renham-Cook.

My name is Lynda Renham-Cook and I am a childless woman – not by choice (as opposed to ‘child-free’).

I have been childless for over 25 years and my chances of ever being a mother is now negligible. The deep void felt by a woman who wants a child but is unable to conceive is indescribable.

I know, because I have tried to express my pain to my second husband, who is a father and he cannot comprehend it and I can barely describe it.

However, I consider myself lucky. I have never lost a child, or given birth to a dead baby like one friend who delivered at nine months her dead child because the umbilical cord was tied around her baby’s neck.

I have never had to endure the ordeal of an early hysterectomy or feel the constant physical pain that follows operations that have been unsuccessful. My own infertility has the dreaded, awful title of ‘Unexplained Infertility.’

In broad terms, this means that Doctors cannot find a medical explanation for why a pregnancy doesn’t happen. Through the years my emotions have resembled a fairground attraction. They have roller coasted from sadness, bitterness, devastation, loneliness, to almost madness.

I have read about women who have stolen babies from other women and although I do not condone this I can understand it. Many women are brought up believing that getting married and having children is the greatest thing a woman can achieve.

Many are practically ostracised from their families when they cannot reproduce. They have failed as women. How do these women cope with the loss of their own family coupled with their inability to have children? I cannot begin to imagine.

I have struggled to highlight the plight of childless women. It is very difficult for a woman, without children, to integrate herself into what is very much a family orientated society.

For many years I hid the fact that I could not have children. I deluded myself that it was the fair thing to do for others and myself. It was not right to embarrass the rest of society, or for me to face the pitied looks from other women. I told everyone I met that I did not want children.

The most common questions asked when socialising are, ‘What do you do then Lynda?’ and ‘Do you have children?’

Childless people are seen as an embarrassment

I find this exceptionally personal but it seems an acceptable question when in mixed company. Consequently, for much of my life I felt an outsider in society and still do, albeit in a more comfortable way now, as I am more relaxed with my situation. I still am, however, an embarrassment that most mothers do not know how to deal with.

Every mother reading this will shake her head in denial and think how ridiculous. But, they do feel embarrassment when meeting a childless woman, rather like people do when faced with grief.

They do not know what to say and suddenly you are a woman they have nothing in common with. They cannot discuss their child’s feeding problems, or their teenagers annoying habits.

They are uncomfortable to discuss their offspring’s achievements with you because you cannot compete with stories of your own. So they find ways of making you feel less inadequate, even though, you may not, and may never have felt that way in the first place.

Their most helpful comments are the following:

“Well you haven’t missed anything.”

Oh really?

“If I had my time again I wouldn’t do it.”

Do they seriously expect me to believe that they would not give birth to little Jamie or adorable Sophie if they could go back in time? Why do I not believe them?

Then, there is the religious viewpoint:

“God works in mysterious ways.”

Is this some strange way of telling me that God felt I was not good enough to be a mother?

However, my favourite has to be:

“Why don’t you foster?”

Now, there’s a thought. How easy that must be. Do I want to look after a child only to give it up after a period of time? No, I don’t think so.

Finding support

Time passed and I finally overcame my feelings of shame and when asked if I have children, I simply reply: “No, I couldn’t have them.”

I ignore the stupid comments they may make in an attempt to make me feel less inadequate. I have found other projects to fill my life and although nothing can fill that void, I refuse to be a victim of my childlessness.

It occurred to me that I could not be alone. I never had an opportunity to share my feelings with anyone when I first learnt I was childless but now, thanks to the Internet all that has changed. I have discovered many women all over the world are suffering the same plight.

Two years ago I began a Facebook group ‘Childless Support’. At the beginning only a handful of women joined. Almost one year later we have 150 members and are still growing.

I also learnt how to get in touch with my own feelings by seeking out a good counsellor.

Our aim is to highlight the difficulties faced by childless women. It is important that we are an integral part of society and not seen to be outsiders or victims.

Childless men

More importantly it should never be forgotten that men are childless too and their pain is just as acute. I am thrilled we have males in our group who give us a whole new perspective on being childless.

Jerry, a childless man has wrestled with his emotions for many years. Here is his story:

Like Lynda, I too dread that question at dinner parties:

“Do you have children?”

“No!” Is what I want to scream, loudly, angrily and in pain.

In the past I used to just say no and attempt to change the subject. Now, I say, “It hasn’t worked for us.”

This provokes a variety of reactions, some very supportive, seeming to recognise the depth of my sadness and understanding it, while others, obviously embarrassed, begin to utter those platitudes, well-meant but ultimately quite insulting as Lynda has already mentioned.

I can’t speak for other childless men, however, I can tell you what it has been like for me.

Way back when I was 22 I was taking a group of people around a local nature reserve and I can remember vividly how excited the children were at everything I was showing them.

Their joy and happiness and their laughter had an amazing effect on me. That was the day I decided I wanted to be a father more than anything else in life.

When I met my partner it was so frustrating waiting for her to catch up with my desires and the frustration continued when things didn’t happen as expected.

Then came the exhaustive and intimate tests, until finally we were given the label of ‘unexplained infertility.’ It is a frustrating diagnosis. It gives you nothing definite to kick against, to force closure, or to stop all those ‘what if’ thoughts that flood into your mind.

After four cycles of IVF we achieved a pregnancy only to suffer a miscarriage, but our little one lives on in our hearts. Eventually my partner could take no more disappointments and my life became empty, my future bleak. Everything I’d dreamed about and lived for was gone.

It has taken a lot of strength to get myself together again, to enjoy life once more because for a while nothing lifted me. Life as a childless man when all you ever wanted to be was a father is incredibly tough. Until you are in that position you do not realise just how many references to children there are in everyday life.

Families are everywhere in the media. Family life, form the basis of so many films and plays. Television adverts are full of children. You hear a child in a play call ‘daddy daddy’ and you realise you are never going to hear those words addressed to you and it hurts. It hurts a lot.

Every day, every hour, society reminds you of what you will never experience.

Infertility I think affects men differently from women. Childless women get a degree of sympathy and recognition.

Whenever infertility is discussed in the media the pain endured by women is recognised while that endured by men is so often ignored.

Men often feel that they have to be strong to be supportive of their partner, so they hide their disappointment, pain and anguish. Others find the inability to control events overwhelming.

What lifted me out of the dark place I’d sunk into was talking. Talking to pretty much anyone who had anything constructive to say – counsellors, friends, strangers, and of course my partner.

A vital part of that talking has been on the internet. That wonderful piece of technology has allowed me to reach out to others in the same situation as me and that has been so important.

It can be too easy to feel so alone when you are faced with such major issues in your life, as many will testify, and being able to talk and chat, online helps so much.

I have struggled not to be bitter and feel blessed to have found a wonderful husband whose own children have been very accepting of me and given me the pleasures of grandparenting, something I thought I would never experience.

I am always happy when someone in our group tells us they are finally pregnant. Bitterness is the road to destruction and not one I want to travel.

How to respond to involuntarily childless people

If you meet a childless woman please do not presume it is by choice. Do not feel you need to say anything to make their situation better and please attempt not to show any embarrassment.

One of the nicest responses I ever had was from a man I met at a dinner party. I had previously found this particular person rather arrogant and was not looking forward to seeing him again. He and his wife arrived late, full of apologies. Their babysitter had let them down at the last-minute and then their eldest child would not settle with the new sitter.

“Who would have children?” he had said with a nonchalant air as he removed his jacket.

“I would,” I answered in a flash.

He acknowledged me without pity in his eyes and simply said,

“I’m sorry.”

It was enough. I didn’t feel inadequate. It was the right response.

Lynda Renham-Cook is associate editor of The Scavenger. A freelance writer, she learnt she could not have children three years after being married. She was then in her early 30s. After a long battle with infertility treatment she eventually resigned herself to never being a mother.

As time went on her loneliness increased and she sought to find a way to integrate herself into society. In an attempt to seek support she set up a group on the internet and discovered many women suffering in the same way. Her discovery has not only helped her understand the struggles other women have gone through but also gained her many new friends.

Any woman wishing to join Lynda’s group can contact her childless@lyndarenham.org.uk

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How to be a Hypochondriac in six easy lessons (and get what you want)

Being a hypochondriac has enormous beneficial uses as many women have already found. It will get you the right kind of attention from the man in your life. It will give you the much-needed rest you need from the housework and in the case of a good friend of mine it even gained her a nanny, Life as a woman, is not easy. We all know, having it all, means doing it all yourself. Now with Hypochondria becoming the most popular accessory, you too can have it all too just like the top celebrities without doing anything at all. Be like Lindsey Lohan whose weeping got her the comfort of tough women cons. Lessons. 1) Don’t underestimate the use of tears. They are a great stress reliever and probably all those headaches you get are due to stress because of all the things you have to do. Angelina Jolie and Hilary Clinton have used them to wonderful advantage. Easy to create with the use of an onion. Or, take a tip from Chris Brown and use tear inducing eye drops. A little more expensive but you should get the best you can when using hypochondria as an accessory It really is worth wearing that mascara you are so allergic to also. A few tears and you can put away the pots and pans, Your husband is sure to take you out to cheer you up. So he should after all you do. After one of those really tiring days, when you have filled the dishwasher and done the school run consider this as your treat. 2) Remember exercise is dangerous. If you insist on running then be aware if your knee hurts or your back hurts it is most likely you have slipped a cartilage or a disc. Be sure to hire a cleaner for three months and do not lift, not even an ironing board, or even an iron come to that. Be careful when lifting your arms as that could strain your back. Ask your husband to brush your hair when he gets home. He will be happy to have something to do after his boring day. Take painkillers four times a day and bed rest if needed. 3) Most severe, serious headaches come on at night, according to specialists. All physical activity should be avoided at these times. Your husband will understand that sex is out of the question. After all, this could be the start of a serious tumour and needs to be taken seriously. Take two aspirin and sleep for as long as possible. If this means all night and the following day, so be it. Your husband can sort out the children. If he is late for work, he will not be missed. It is important to understand your importance in the world and a tired woman is an unproductive one. 4) Any breast pain should be investigated properly. Often it may be due to the wrong size bra, but if you are a busy housewife and mother juggling a part-time job when can you find the time to buy a new one? Should you suffer from ‘Too tight bra syndrome’ do not lift your child/children as this will aggravate the pain. Hire a Nanny until your busy schedule allows you to get to the shops. Or make sure your husband leaves his credit card with you so you can shop for one online. Be sure to take pain killers every four hours and rest as much as possible. 5) Never forget Periods are an illness. They affect you profoundly both physically and mentally. You may notice your husband goes through something similar at the same time. This has now been diagnosed as ‘lack of brain activity syndrome’ and hits men once a month. Unlike women their lives are quite empty. Sitting at a desk, pushing a pen and checking emails can lead to ‘lack of brain activity syndrome’ very quickly. This leads the man to look for some activity during the month and this often coincides with your period. He will try very hard to arouse activity for himself and you will notice he uses you for this and may make comments which deflects the issue from himself. The comments often follow a pattern and he may use words like. ‘Is your period due?’ or ‘Is it that time of the month?’ He really means is it that time of the month for him, when he will be argumentative and then blame it on you. You must not forget that periods are an illness and that bedrest is needed when you are cramping. Again, you should not attempt anything too hazardous and housework is out of the question. A cleaner should be considered at all times. After all a slight pull to a stomach muscle could lead to a fibroid, I am told. 6) Celebrities have already seen the dangers of childbirth and use their hypochondria to its best advantage. Pregnancy causes stretch marks and can be unsightly and may even cause pain. You may also suffer from cracked nipples if you choose to breast feed. This is all detrimental to your health. Use your hypochondria here to explain the dangers to your husband and use a surrogate mother. For a few pounds you can get a good one these days and for just a little extra you can hire a nanny so you get the sleep you need to do all those other onerous jobs. Remember, you are special and your husband knows that.

Treading on a penis

On Saturday I strolled into the Ann Summers shop in Oxford. Yes, I really did. I remember bumping into a bespectacled woman while browsing the vibrator section.
Don’t worry I am not going to go into a detailed description of the assortment of vibrators on sale. But the difference of ages in the women who were there was interesting. The youngest must have been 18 and the oldest (not me) had to have been the bespectacled woman, all of sixty, if not more. Of course, it is not the first time I have been into Ann Summers and thinking about it on the way home it reminded me of my first innocent Ann Summers party and the disastrous second one.
My first Ann Summers party was many years ago when the whole Ann Summers thing was something you whispered and giggled about. I went along with some trepidation. I had never even seen a vibrator and was quite nervous at the thought of ever even doing so. But, amazingly enough not even a glimmer of a vibrator was in sight. The whole party was about sexy lingerie. I came home feeling quite proud of the fact that I had attended an Ann Summers party and come home unscathed. When any of the women I worked with mentioned Ann Summers in hushed tones, I would say proudly, ‘Oh, I’ve been to an Ann Summers party and quite enjoyed it.’ So, when a few years later I was invited to another one and my friend’s-very innocent- eighteen-year-old daughter asked if she could come too, I said yes. After all, there would only be sexy lingerie there, I thought. Never presume in life, trust me on this one. We entered and the first things to greet us were little wound up penises running around the lounge floor. Somehow, my instinct told me this was not going to be anywhere near as similar as my previous experience. I looked to my friend who was very cleverly pretending not to notice the little penises, while I made concerted efforts not to step on them. The thought of a mangled penis, even made of plastic can make one squirm slightly. Glasses of wine were offered and boy did I need one having just spotted the various assortments of sex toys on the table. My sole aim now was to try and prevent any discomfort for my companion. I quickly realized this party had very little interest in lingerie unless you included pink fluffy handcuffs in that category. After being advised by my straight-laced friend that perhaps I should not be drinking considering I was driving us both home later, I shelved the wine. I waited with bated breath for what was to come next when the hostess asked us for quiet. After a brief introduction, she went on to tell us that we would now play ‘pass the parcel’ in an attempt to get to know each other and some of the Ann Summers goods. My heart sank. I smiled at my friend who shifted in her seat.
‘Ready girls?’
I wanted to scream no, and frantically tried to think of excuses to leave quickly. I could suddenly develop severe diarrhoea but the music started to blare and so began the passing of the parcel. Oh, horror of horrors. The first unwrapping produced the largest vibrator I had ever seen in fact I am sure my eyes watered at the sight. In case we needed a closer look it was passed around as the game continued. The music stopped and the parcel landed in my companions lap. I held my breath. In an instant she had thrown it into mine. Everyone began clapping for me to open it. Ah, at last some nice lingerie, a lovely black frilly bra. I read the forfeit. Oh, great. I had to stand up, clutch my breasts (such as they were) and sing ‘I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts’.
Strangely enough I was more embarrassed about singing out of tune than anything else. My friend looked relieved. Finally the game over, we had more fun with the walking penises and more vibrators were passed around until I became punch drunk on vibrators. Of course by this time a fair bit of wine had been consumed and some of the women began sharing their sex secrets. I discreetly moved the eighteen year old to a safer area. Others were crying into their wine and vibrators about how their husband’s didn’t care about their needs, while I tried to work out how to buy something without my friend knowing what it was. Then we had the fashion show where the lingerie came into its own. We were all encouraged to try on something and share. Sharing is bonding it seems. I sensed my friend was not keen to bond. I squeezed myself into a maid’s outfit much to her look of disgust. I was beginning to enjoy myself now even without the wine. But from her face I could see it was time to go. I raced through the book with her eyes on me and finally after handing in my order, I made some excuse and we left. We were silent in the car until we reached her house and as she climbed out I hesitantly asked.
‘Did you enjoy yourself?’
‘I just think it best if mum does not know.’ was her reply.
Driving home I remember thinking prim little madam! Finally I got home and my husband said,
‘Had a good time?’
‘Yes I trod on a penis, it was great fun.’
Now, thank goodness I don’t have to attend Ann Summers parties I can just stroll into the shop in Oxford and not have to worry about playing pass the parcel or being given disapproving looks. Wonderful